What do we mean by equality of opportunity?

There is a lot of vacuous talk about the advantages of grammar schools, but I have yet to hear any advantages put forward for the non-grammar schools other children would attend. The general line is that they aren’t the same as secondary moderns of the 1950s.

For those that see Education Journal, there is an excellent deconstruction of Mrs May’s speech in the latest edition. It shows how she laced non-controversial points all could support with rhetoric about what she feels grammar schools do well. For an even more devastating demolition of her policy by a leading Conservative education thinker and former adviser to Mr Gove one could do better than read Sam Freeman’s piece at http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/09/sam-freeman-selective-schools-destroy-choice-and-competition-why-conservatives-should-oppose-mays-plans.html it is worth noting where it first appeared.

On Tuesday, several Conservative councillors in Oxfordshire voted with the opposition parties on the county to support a motion opposed to the return of grammar schools. It will be interesting to hear whether that happens elsewhere in the country and, indeed, whether education will play a large part in the Witney by-election?

I think much of Mrs May’s approach to grammar schools is founded on a notion of equality that differs from that now accepted by many others. This was clear during the exchanges at PMQs in the House of Commons yesterday. Mrs May appears to believe we should use state resources to strive to allow everyone to achieve their best. Actually, this normally means allowing a few to achieve their best and many others to under-achieve unless you get the funding and organisation right. That’s certainly the history of selective systems.

Elsewhere the notion of equality has tended towards one where the State recognises the right of everyone to reach at least a minimum standard and that some pupils require more resources than others to achieve this goal; hence the Pupil Premium that Mrs May’s seems to support, although not perhaps as enthusiastically as her predecessor.

Many years ago Baroness Warnock discussed these different notions of education equality in a seminal article in the first edition of the Oxford Review of Education. How you allocate resources to an education system is as important as the structure of the system. A National Funding Formula probably won’t work with a grammar school system because these schools often have higher cost structures than comprehensive schools for a variety of reasons. If the grammar school policy is not quietly shelved at the end of the consultation period then I fear for under-funded schools in Oxfordshire. They are never likely to see the extra funds that they deserve.

Finally, on grammar schools, the issue of selection by house prices. I was sent the following by Chris Waterman that well known commentator on the education scene.

One of the hackneyed arguments being put forward in favour of the expansion of grammar schools is that selection by ability is fairer than selection by house price. On face value alone it’s a silly argument – it’s replacing one form of social selection with another form of social selection, and institutionalising it.

 However, it’s interesting to look at which schools command the biggest house price premium. The most recent report was published last week by Lloyds Bank. It looked at the house price premium for the top 30 state schools in England. And of course because the top 30 schools are mostly grammar schools, the schools attracting the highest house price premiums are all grammar schools. Three of the top five are Bucks grammars with Sir William Borlase among them.


 In other words, it is grammar schools that create the worst problems around house price inflation – contributing to social exclusivity in our communities. So, surely far from addressing the problem of selection by house price, more grammar schools will extend and entrench the problem?

For me, the aim is to create every school as a good school as the London Challenge strived to do, but that is not possible if we don’t recruit sufficient teachers. Perhaps the real impetus behind the move to more grammar schools isn’t to select pupils, but to select teachers.


2 thoughts on “What do we mean by equality of opportunity?

  1. I debunked the Lloyds survey here: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2016/09/selection-by-house-price-will-be-stopped-by-selection-by-ability-says-telegraph
    The ‘top-performing 30′ were all grammars, many were single sex (no amount of premium would get a boy into an all-girls’ school) and one selected by religion as well. The area with the highest premium was Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire – that’s what parents would have to fork out for the daughter (not son) to go to ‘top-performing’ Beaconsfield High. But daughter would have to pass the selection test. If she didn’t, the nearest alternative is a much lower-performing non-selective school in the same time. You could argue that parents were paying a premium to attend that since they all live in the same very expensive area.

    • Janet,

      Thanks for the observation. I represent a part of north Oxford with high prices and a top performing schools plus several private schools. It is also a desirable place to live. I want all schools to be good schools regardless of house prices, but to achieve that aim we need more teachers. Mrs May has been silent on that failure of government.

      John Howson

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